Edward Taylor (ca. 1642-1729), Puritan poet and minister, was one of the finest literary artists of colonial America.
Born in England, highly educated, and living a rather isolated frontier life at Westfield, Mass., Edward Taylor appears to have been outside the major developments in Puritan New England. His theology resembled that of his orthodox Boston contemporaries Michael Wigglesworth, Increase and Cotton Mather, and his lifelong friend Samuel Sewall, more than that of Solomon Stoddard, minister at nearby Northampton, whose liberal views on church membership Taylor strongly disapproved. He disliked James II and his colonial appointment Governor Andros, and he was heartened by the Revolution of 1688. As a strict Congregationalist, Taylor opposed the Plan of Union between Congregational and Presbyterian churches. His poetry recalls the somewhat older, baroque English tradition of George Herbert and Richard Crashaw.
Little is known about Taylor's early life. The date and exact place of his birth are uncertain. Born and raised in Leicestershire near Coventry, in a Nonconformist home, he left England because, as a devout Puritan, he felt unable to comply with the Act of Uniformity. He was in his mid-20s when he emigrated to America in 1668 and already embarked on a career in the ministry. His letters of introduction to Increase Mather and others, and his admission to Harvard in advanced standing, indicate that he was well educated. He was one of four speakers at his commencement in 1671.
Taylor accepted a call to be minister at Westfield, where he spent the rest of his life. In 1675 Westfield was threatened by Indian invasion. The village suffered no major attack, but not until 1679, when hostilities ceased, was a church formally organized. He had led in the preparations for the town's defense and had also become its teacher and physician. He drafted the creed for the new church and alone had responsibility for it in the early years.
Man of Letters
Taylor compiled a distinguished library. Of its approximately 200 volumes many were copied by hand from books he was too poor to buy. His grandson Ezra Stiles, later president of Yale, described him as a classical scholar, master of three ancient languages, and an able historian, and as "A man of small stature, but firm; of quick Passions, yet serious and grave." Stiles inherited Taylor's library and carryed out his wish that the poetry not be published. Scarcely known in its own day, Taylor's work was bequeathed to Yale University by a descendant in 1883. Not until 1939 was a significant selection of poems published, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
One of Taylor's poems is a moving and complex elegy for his first wife, Elizabeth Fitch, whom he married in 1674; she bore eight children and died in 1689. In 1692 he married Ruth Willys; they had six children.
Not usually autobiographical, Taylor's poems fall into four groups. The first, "God's Determinations Touching His Elect, " is a long dramatic allegory written probably before 1690. Present critical attention centers on the second group, "Preparatory Meditations before My Approach to the Lord's Supper, " 217 poems written between 1682 and 1725. The third group, his miscellaneous poems, includes some of the best-loved short pieces, in which familiar subjects are used to express metaphysical themes. The last category is the Metrical History, an unpublished poem over 430 manuscript pages long, which describes the history of the Protestant church.
Although Taylor's poetical structures are traditional in their basic allegory, their intricacy and dynamics are deeply original. His lines move to a rough cadence; the verbs are strong, the imagery vigorous, the nouns often plain. In the celebrated preface to "God's determination, " for example, he portrays God as a master builder who "Blew the Bellow of his Furnace Vast, " constructed the world, and "in his Bowling Alley bowled the Sun."
Taylor's art glorifies Christian experience. Like a sermon, a poem for Taylor was a means of renewing one's awareness of his spiritual condition. Of course, conversion itself depended on the divine infusion of grace. But, once converted, the saint could, by means of meditation, recall and refresh that experience and prepare again to reenact his union with Christ at the Lord's Supper. Taylor never tired of celebrating that union; for him it was the central event in history as well as the central experience of an individual life. Frequently his meditations begin with the poet's feeling impotent and depressed; his words seem awkward and artificial. But focusing on a passage from Scripture, often from Psalms or the Song of Songs, unlocks the poet's powers of love and praise.
Taylor used biblical references to the fullest advantage. He depended on a traditional system of biblical analogues created by early Christian exegetes and widely used by later writers (Milton and George Herbert among them). Certain Old Testament stories were said to prefigure the life of Christ: Jonah and the whale, for example, typified Christ's death and resurrection, as did Abraham's sacrifice. Circumcision prefigured baptism; the Hebrew Passover, the Lord's Supper; and so forth. A meditation centered, for example, on the "wine from Canaans Vineyard" suggests communion and themes of suffering and grace, since the wine is Christ's blood. But it also implies Christ's second coming, since Canaan, the Promised Land, is the type of Christ's kingdom on earth described in Revelations. Thus Taylor here refers simultaneously to the community of saints joined with Christ in the millennium and the continuous communion of the individual with a redemptive Christ here and now.
A similar cluster of themes constitutes the basis of all Taylor's work, be it meditation, sermon, history, verse dialogue, or scientific treatise. Christographia is a collection of sermons about the human and divine natures of Christ. Like the Mathers, but with a view of Christ's coming that emphasized His love rather than His judgment, Taylor recorded divine providences and unusual natural phenomena. He investigated and compiled lore on the medicinal properties of natural things—a work of use of him as a physician.
As an elderly, physically challenged man, resisting the removal of his church to a new meeting house on a new site, Taylor left much in his verse unpolished and uncorrected. He seems not to have intended his poetry for the public. Evaluation of his work awaits scholarly clarification of the role of the Puritan poet in America and of Taylor's intentions for his work.
Further Reading on Edward Taylor
Donald E. Stanford, ed., The Poems of Edward Taylor (1960), contains the important poems, the complete text of the "Preparatory Meditations, " and valuable introductions to the poetry by Louis L. Martz and by Stanford. The authoritative biography of Taylor is Norman S. Grabo, Edward Taylor (1962). Recommended for its analysis of the literature of the period is Kenneth B. Murdock, Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (1949).
Additional Biography Sources
Keller, Karl, The example of Edward Taylor, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975.